The Perfect Enemy | Down and Out When 2022 Began, Novak Djokovic Is On Top Again. Kind Of.
December 1, 2022
Read Time:6 Minute

Djokovic, the Serbian star, missed long stretches of the season because he refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19. After winning the ATP Finals, is he the king of tennis again? Maybe.

TURIN, Italy — The 2022 men’s tennis season finally ended Sunday night with Novak Djokovic, the 21-time Grand Slam singles champion, seemingly on top once more. This being tennis though, the story is not that simple. It rarely is, especially when Djokovic is involved. Actually, it’s pretty complicated.

Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish phenom, got a massive trophy in Turin on Thursday, his reward for finishing the season as the world’s top-ranked player. Because he is injured, however, he did not play in this season-ending tournament, the ATP Finals, which awards the winner one of the biggest cash prizes of year.

Djokovic, Serbia’s most famous citizen, captured that $2.2 million prize on Sunday with a 7-5, 6-3 win over Casper Ruud of Norway, plus a $2.5 million bonus for going undefeated this week. He got a massive trophy, too, and staked a rightful claim to being the best male player in the world, even though he’s ranked eighth.

Like Alcaraz, in 2022 he won only one Grand Slam tournament — the most important championships. Rafael Nadal, the men’s career leader with 22 Grand Slam singles titles, won two, so maybe he is the hero of the year, despite losing four of his last five matches.

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Djokovic missed two of the four Grand Slam tournaments and huge chunks of the season because he refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19. The major he won, Wimbledon, earned him zero rankings points after the tennis powers in Britain decided to bar players from Russia and Belarus.

That move violated Wimbledon’s nondiscrimination agreement with the men’s and women’s pro tours. So, in retaliation, the tours attempted to turn the sport’s most prestigious championship into an exhibition by withholding their rankings points. Since Djokovic earned no points for the Wimbledon win and could not play in North America without a Covid-19 vaccination, he had to scramble for wins this fall just to qualify for the season-ending gathering of, supposedly, the eight best players.

He capped it all off with a textbook win Sunday evening. He was far from 100 percent physically and spent extra time on his bench during the changeovers, guzzling a brown energy drink and mopping his face with towels. Through much of the first set, he was gassed after any point that lasted more than a few shots.

Often though, that is when Djokovic is at his best. He moans through the crucial points that turn the match, then, once in the lead, steps on his opponent’s neck. For example: With Ruud serving to send the first set to a tiebreaker, he missed his first serve at 30-30 by mere millimeters. That was the tiny opening Djokovic needed. He jumped on the next serve, blasted through two rallies, then rolled in the second set, sending Ruud on a series of mad chases after the ball.

An ace down the middle of the court sealed the match.

“This one is special,” Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, said.

Djokovic — hoisting and embracing his children, who have been with him all week — was on top of tennis once more.

“In my mind, I always see myself as the best player in the world,” he said.

He was this week, but this is tennis.

In fairness to the sport, it’s been a weird year. Coronavirus outbreaks. Changing vaccination requirements. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ill-timed injures at the top of the sport. And yet, no one, not even the people who run tennis — and there are a lot of them, in seven different ruling organizations — would ever suggest that the sport makes it easy on fans.

While 2022 may have been especially messy, tennis is the rare sport that seems to encourage the mess. Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece won the most matches among the top players, but just one significant tournament, making him either a major disappointment or a rising force, or both, depending on the week or the month, or the prism that he or anyone else uses to measure the season.

Prefer a more subjective measure? Nick Kyrgios, the temperamental and combative Australian, a master showman and “tennis genius” according to Djokovic’s coach, is the reigning crowd favorite, especially with the younger generation. He packs stadiums everywhere, for singles and doubles, but hates to travel and plays a limited schedule. He is also facing a domestic violence charge in Australia in relation to a fight with an ex-girlfriend last year.

“It’s like you have this book and everybody is writing different chapters,” said Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the ATP and a former player. “And you can only find those chapters in different bookstores, and you’ve got to figure out the story.”

The danger for professional tennis as the world has known it for a half-century is that within confusion there is an opportunity for disruption, and those forces are lurking. Saudi Arabia, which made a mess of men’s golf this year, buying players away from the PGA Tour to create LIV Golf, has begun to dip its toe into tennis. Several top young players — including Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev of Russia, Alexander Zverev of Germany, Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem of Austria — will play in an exhibition in Saudi Arabia in December, likely earning hefty fees just to show up. Stay tuned in 2023.

But what exactly was the story of 2022?

Taylor Fritz, the top American male player, who won his first Masters 1000 title in March and lost to Djokovic in two tiebreaker sets in an ATP semifinal Thursday, called 2022 a “crazy year” that boiled down to this: When Djokovic was allowed to play, he was the best player.

“There’s no doubt about that,” Fritz said Saturday as he absorbed being so close to knocking off Djokovic though not in the most crucial moments. But Djokovic was out for long stretches, and other than the injury-prone Nadal early in the year, no one else seized the mantle, opening up the sport to something akin to mayhem after a decade of domination by Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer.

“Take Novak out of the equation, and there’s 15 to 20 people that can all beat each other on any given day given the circumstances,” Fritz said.

This week, though, Djokovic was very much in the equation, capping off what he euphemistically described as “a very unusual season.”

It started in Australia in January, when Djokovic boarded a plane after securing the necessary documentation to prove that he had recently recovered from Covid-19 and receiving last-minute permission to enter the country. Immigration officials detained him when he landed, then set him free, then detained him once more. He waited while confined to a Melbourne hotel for asylum seekers while Australia’s judiciary considered whether the federal government had the right to revoke his visa and deport him. It did, and the men’s season went sideways from there, as its dominant player became a part-time participant.

Djokovic said this week that he had learned a lot about himself and the world this year, and about certain people who had behaved kindly toward him and those who had not.

“I’m always thankful to go through experiences, no matter what the experiences are,” he said, during a week in which he was hyper-focused on winning one minute, then introspective and philosophical the next. “I try to be optimistic and positive in life.”

At the end of a long, strange year, he has plenty of reasons to feel that way.